As a humanitarian crisis grows in the wake of a devastating hurricane, Puerto Ricans are pushing for President Trump to waive a law residents say is preventing them from recovery — but so far, the White House has reportedly refused.
Puerto Rico has been grappling with an unfolding disaster ever since Hurricane Maria hit the island last week. At least 16 people have died, much of the island is without electricity, and around 1.5 million people are without running water. Many residents have also struggled to find cellular service in order to make contact with family members on the mainland.
Further complicating the crisis is Puerto Rico’s location, which is more challenging to reach than places like Florida or Texas, two mainland states also suffering from the aftermath of powerful hurricanes. Trump himself argued that the island’s location has posed a challenge to relief efforts.
“It’s very tough, because it’s an island,” Trump said on Tuesday. “In Texas, we can ship the trucks right out there. And you know, we’ve gotten A-pluses on Texas and on Florida, and we will also on Puerto Rico. But the difference is, this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean. And it’s a big ocean; it’s a very big ocean. And we’re doing a really good job.”
Location isn’t the only thing standing in the way of aid and recovery for Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony without full voting rights. A growing number of commentators have pointed to the limitations imposed by the Jones Act, a law enacted in 1920 after World War I, amid fears of German U-boats. Meant to ensure that the United States maintains a shipbuilding industry, the law mandates that, among other things, only U.S. ships are permitted to carry U.S. goods from one domestic port to another — and all those ships have to be U.S.-sourced and operated.
That’s terrible news for Puerto Rico, which has suffered because of the Jones Act for some time. Foreign vessels arriving at the island are charged a number of fees and taxes (all imposed on Puerto Ricans themselves.) This usually encourages ships to re-route to the mainland, where goods can be unloaded, sent to the wider country, and delivered back to Puerto Rico — via a U.S. vessel, the cost of which also comes back to Puerto Rican consumers. A 2012 report found that the Jones Act cost the island $17 billion between 1990 and 2010.
For debt-ridden Puerto Rico, which has half the per capita income of the poorest mainland state, Mississippi, extra costs and a disproportionate burden are a fact of life, despite the island’s status as fifth-largest market in the world for U.S. products. That’s going to make recovery much harder — which is why some argue lifting the Jones Act would help.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times published Monday, former New York State assemblyman Nelson A. Denis pushed for the Trump administration to lift the Jones Act for Puerto Rico, arguing that it was especially devastating in light of the hurricane.
“Food costs twice as much in Puerto Rico as in Florida. Jones Act relief will save many Puerto Ricans — especially children and seniors — from potential starvation,” Denis argued. “Jones Act relief will also enable islanders to find medicine, especially Canadian pharmaceuticals, at lifesaving rates. And it will give islanders access to international oil markets — crucial for running its electric grid — devoid of a 30 percent Jones Act markup.”
Others have argued that the issue goes far beyond economics, saying the law is preventing fuel and emergency supplies from getting to Puerto Rico quickly.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, both Texas and Florida had the Jones Act temporarily lifted, something typically done after a request, in the interest of national security. (Notably, the hurricane-afflicted U.S. Virgin Islands are already exempt from the law.) A number of lawmakers have urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to do the same for Puerto Rico, but word circulated Tuesday that the request had been denied, sparking condemnation from several lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
“The Department of Homeland Security has been given the ability to waive the Jones Act to accommodate national security concerns, and has done so twice in the last month,” McCain said in a statement, pointing to the positive impact that action had in Texas and Florida.
“It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster,” he continued. “Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.”
But in a call Tuesday, DHS officials denied that any formal request had been lodged, noting that requests typically come from shippers, rather than Congress. Officials later said that congressional requests had been noted and would be reviewed accordingly, with that process expected to take some time.
The Trump administration’s key argument has been that supplies are already in Puerto Rico, thereby removing the need for Jones Act relief. That’s something others have echoed; the real issue, they say, is damaged ports — with supplies on the island but much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure destroyed, getting aid to those who need it is a daunting challenge.
Jose Ayala, president of Crowley Maritime, a Florida-based ship operator, said in a statement that the damage had presented a major hurdle.
“That part of logistics from our terminal, that supply chain has been interrupted,” he said. “The biggest challenge is how you can move the cargo. The cargo is here. The people of Puerto Rico should not have any fear that there is not going to be food or medicine on the island.”
In comments made Wednesday, Trump indicated that he was hesitating about lifting the policy, because “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry…don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”
“We have a lot of ships out there right now,” he added.
But anger is growing among the people of Puerto Rico, with Trump under fire for his slow response to the crisis and 97 percent of residents still without power. Jones Act relief might not solve all of the problems, but in the face of one of the worst storms in its history, the island desperately needs all the assistance the federal government can give. That alone should guide the Trump administration’s hand, former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno told Buzzfeed News.
“Even at this stage in the recovery, a temporary waiver on the Jones Act, to bring in all the necessary assets to save lives, should be allowed,” Fortuno said. “It doesn’t make sense to do otherwise.”
This post has been updated to include Trump’s comments on Wednesday afternoon.